By Jamie Bryson
10 April 1998 was the saddest day in the history of political unionism.
The Belfast Agreement, which was sold to unionists as a settlement, instead breathed into life an expansive ‘process’ which is in of itself a Trojan horse for Irish nationalism.
Entwined with this process was peace, creating the moral blackmail at the heart of the Belfast Agreement which subtly suggests that in order to have peace, you must support the ‘process’. This has been combined into one of the great linguistic deceptions at the heart of the Belfast Agreement, a simple phrase known as the ‘peace process’.
Peace is an absence of violence, so by explicitly linking it to the ‘process’, proponents of the agreement cleverly created the situation whereby opposition to the process would be equated with opposition to peace.
So where does this ‘peace process’ end. That is perhaps the most logical question, that has been illogically avoided for 20 years.
A ‘process’ is defined in the following terms;
A series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end
It is therefore clear that a process, by its very definition, works towards a particular end. So to interpret the end of the peace process, one must look at the legal framework underpinning it, namely the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
The Northern Ireland Act provides for only one referendum, that which poses the question on whether the majority of persons are ready to join a United Ireland. This referendum continues in seven year cycles until such times as the answer is in the affirmative. It is at this point that the process ends.
It is here that the absurdity of any unionist supporting the process, which is a by word for the Belfast Agreement, is laid bare. Everyone should support peace, which in practical terms is the absence of violence and support for the rule of law. That should be a given. By pretending that such a peace is dependent upon acquiescence the process, society effectively gives a veto to those that would use violence to advance political aims. How morally perverse is that?
Today we will hear people like Tony Blair regale us with high tales about the remarkable Belfast Agreement, about the hand of history. Of course this ridiculous remark wasn’t off the cuff or unguarded by the then Prime Minister, it was a clever attempt to elevate a political deal to a divine level. It is for similar reasons we had the Belfast Agreement christened the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ almost immediately, the religious connotations designed to give a mere political policy and agreement the status of a holy writ.
It is due to this sacrosanct cloak that has been thrown around the Belfast Agreement that all sorts of unjustifiable and immoral concessions have been lavished upon republicans in order to ‘protect the peace process’. The Belfast Agreement at its core rewarded the politics of hostage, rewarding ceasing terrorism with political concessions, therefore it is no surprise that the same tactics have pervaded throughout the entire process.
Today we will also see people like Gerry Adams swan the stage as peace makers. Gerry Adams was not, and is not, a peace maker. He is a ruthless terrorist that sought to tactically trade in the use of violence in order to achieve political concessions. There was no road to Damascus for Sinn Fein and the IRA, simply a change in tactics.
There may be some unionists in 1998 that believed that the Belfast Agreement was the only way to secure peace, and that it would finally provide a lasting settlement for the people of Northern Ireland. Who could fault them for trying if they genuinely held such a belief?
The problem is that nationalism never saw the agreement as a settlement, just a staging post in the process.
It is my personal view that unionism must consistently make clear full and unambiguous support for peace and a complete absence of violence. That is the only way forward. However, it would be foolish to fail to see the trajectory of the ‘process’. It is time to champion peace, but to robustly challenge the process in the form of using every opportunity possible to undermine the Northern Ireland Act and to seek at the very least amendments, if not the outright repeal of that legislative mechanism.
The first step is to ensure there is no return to the status quo.
That means no return to mandatory coalition. When mandatory coalition falls, the Belfast Agreement falls. That is the big prize for unionism.
So today, 20 years on from the saddest day in the history of political unionism, we must commit ourselves to undoing the mistakes of the past 20 years and instead building workable and durable devolution.